From Ashes Part 9: The Philosopher’s Wretchedness

blaise-pascal1

When I consider the brief span of my life absorbed into the eternity which comes before and after…the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know thing and which know nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then? Who put me here? By whose command and act were this time and place allotted to me?

(Blaise Pascal, Pensées)

If our condition were truly happy we should not need to diver ourselves from thinking about it.

(Blaise Pascal, Pensées)


 

There is little doubt that, were a teacher to have Blaise Pascal in their class today, they would be running for the gifted education co-ordinator – who may themselves have found themselves unable to help. Fortunately for the education systems of his day, the highly precocious child who was later to become one of the most influential philosophers and mathematicians of his day was – as we would say today – home-schooled. In her account of his childhood, Catharine Morris Cox writes that “when Blaise was 3, his father began to devote all of his time to the education of his children. The boy never attended school and had no other teacher than his parent”. His father famously refused to teach his son mathematics until he had mastered languages, a fact which perturbed young Blaise no end. Dismissing his son’s anxious requests for mathematics lessons, Pascal Senior described mathematics as merely “the means of making accurate figures and finding the relation they bear to each other”. This, the story goes, awoke in young Pascal such a desire to learn mathematics that, shut up in his own room, he developed almost all the axioms of mathematics, personally discovering Euclid’s thirty-second proposition with no assistance.

Interestingly, though Cox’s accounts of the “early mental traits of geniuses” often emphasise the melancholic tendencies of her subjects, Pascal – who, by Cox’s estimation, belongs to a group of geniuses above whom there is only one figure, John Stuart Mill, possessing an IQ between 180 and 190 – has no psychological distress in his childhood which Cox considers worth mentioning. What Cox does tell us, however, is that the child Pascal had an insatiable thirst for answers:

Pascal early showed much interest in his surroundings and ‘wanted to know a reason for everything.’ When the reason was not known or when his father could not tell him or told him theories which although generally accepted were not actually proved, he was not at all contented, for ‘he had an unusually keen eye for discerning falsity. To know the truth was the single aim of his mind.’

The thirst for knowledge at an early age drives many high-achieving children to independent enquiry or investigation. Such is certainly the case for young Blaise, seen particularly in his prodigious discovery of mathematical truth whilst shut up in his bedroom. Yet a closer look at his childhood suggests that there was more to it than a love of learning. In their psychoanalytic study of Pascal, as part of a broader psychological investigation into the connections between “high intellectual potential” and depression, Catherine Weismann-Arcache and Sylvie Tordjman note both the early trauma experienced by Pascal in losing his mother at age three and the signs of depression and anxiety in him from a young age. Of particular interest to Weismann-Arcache and Tordjman is Pascal’s two early phobias: “one concerning his parents’ expressions of love for each other” and “the other running water”. While their examination of his life seems overly interested in its potential for sexual divergence – a possibly over-affectionate relationship with his sister, for instance, or the Freudian potential in his fears of running water – they nonetheless identify what Cox does not: that young Pascal was arguably as anxious as he was intelligent. We may not entirely agree with the next step to which Weismann-Arcache and Tordjman take their speculation, but it is interesting nonetheless to wonder with them if Pascal’s thirst for intellectual certainty stemmed not only from a desire to know but also from a need for security, a fear of emptiness – expressed most powerfully in the time he spent testing Aristotle’s axiom that “nature abhors a vacuum”. They write:

We can speculate that the young Blaise had a constitutional hyperreactivity that rendered him particularly receptive [to emotional and physical stimuli], with the result that normal situations, such as the loving relationship between his parents, became wounding ones to him.

This tendency in highly intelligent children and adolescents towards “hyperreactivity” is at the heart of a number of theories about intellectual development, including the work of Kazimierz Dabrowski, cited in an earlier essay. Dabrowski termed “hyperreactive” individuals “psychoneurotics”, an unfortunate name which does little to take away potential stigma. Yet Dabrowski’s prose poem, “Be greeted psychoneurotics!”, first published as Paul Cienin in a book of “existential thoughts and aphorisms”, does much more to present a sympathetic, indeed empowering, view of what it means to be “hyperreactive”:

Be greeted psychoneurotics! For you see sensitivity in the insensitivity of the world, uncertainty among the world’s certainties. For you often feel others as you feel yourselves. For you feel the anxiety of the world, and its bottomless narrowness and self-assurance. For your phobia of washing your hands from the dirt of the world, for your fear of the absurdity of existence, for your fear of being locked in the world’s limitations. For your subtlety in not telling others what you see in them. For your awkwardness in dealing with practical things and practicalness in dealing with unknown things, for your transcendental realism and lack of everyday realism, for your exclusiveness and fear of losing close friends, for your creativity and ecstasy, for your maladjustment to that ‘which is’ and adjustment to that ‘which ought to be’, for your great but unutilized abilities. For the belated appreciation of the real value of your greatness which never allows the appreciation of the greatness of whose who will come after you. For your being treated instead of treating others, for your heavenly power being forever pushed down by brutal force; for that which is prescient, unsaid, infinite in you. For the loneliness and strangeness of your ways. Be greeted!

We can, I think, see something of Pascal in this description: his refusal to accept that which his society took for granted, his fervent challenges to axioms, his awareness of human sinfulness and brokenness which drove him to Jansenism – a controversial, semi-Calvinist group within the Catholic church of his day. Moreover, we see in this description the potential for genius wrapped up in tendencies which the world often does not understand. It is speculation, no doubt, yet it is tempting to wonder how Pascal’s life might have been different had he attended a regular school. I think of my own experiences as a school student, and now the things that I observe as a school teacher, and am sad to recognise that our world today is not, perhaps, as willing to weep “tears of joy” as Pascal’s father was over a young boy who personally discovers most of the principles of Euclidean geometry. Perhaps Pascal would have been given new, and more rational, fears had he had to face the kinds of attitudes with which highly intelligent “psychoneurotics” are more commonly “greeted”. Yet God’s grace no doubt was found in the fact that Pascal was raised in a highly intelligent family in which knowledge and learning were valued. This, at least, helped enable him to flourish rather than be destroyed in the process of intellectual development.

Yet we also gain something of a warning from Pascal’s growth as an intellectual. What at first seems simply an insatiable desire for clear, logical reasoning could equally be seen as a need to find security in one’s own knowledge of the world. This can be a kind of obsessive or neurotic behaviour, seeking certainly almost without the possibility of genuine satisfaction. It is possible to see in Pascal’s incomplete apologetic system, published only in their note form as Pensées, a desire to make faith completely watertight – a quest which, arguably, does something to negate the very nature of faith.

This, however, is not the end of the story for Pascal, and here we learn another valuable lesson from his fascinating life of both mental illness and brilliance. It comes, unexpectedly, in statements from Pascal which seem almost to disavow the scientific discipline which he did so much to help develop. Malcolm Muggeridge notes that Pascal “reached the conclusion that what is now our great sacred cow – science – was a cul-de-sac”. Which is not to say that science is useless, rather that it has limits, and sometimes quite profound ones. For Pascal, the issue seems to lie in the limits of the human mind and the human capacity to offer its own remedy. According to Muggeridge, Pascal could only reach this conclusion through being broken in himself: “His proud, defiant mind had to be humbled before it could know anything at all.”

We are, perhaps, clutching at too many straws when we try to make sense of Pascal’s biography, the accounts being often sketchy or inconsistent, driven by competing agendas over his genius. Yet it is significant to note that a man whose life seemed driven by a desire for knowledge could also make poignant statements about the corruptions of the human mind, and it is arguably his awareness of this which makes Pascal still so significant for the world today: not solely for his scientific or logical genius, though few, if any, in the world today could be said to have surpassed him; nor is it because his arguments for Christianity cannot be faulted, because they can. Magnificent though the Pensées are, they are incomplete and flawed, and at times driven by cultural conditions and concerns which a modern reader simply cannot understand without careful further study. Yet Pascal, unlike many of his successors, had humility. We see this humility as it relates to intellectual endeavour in this passage from the Pensées:

It is vain, O men, that you seek within yourselves the cure for your miseries. All your insight only leads you to the knowledge that it is not in yourselves that you will discover the true and the good. The philosophers promised them to you, and have not been able to keep their promise…Your principal maladies are pride, which cuts you off from God; sensuality, which binds you to the earth; and they have done nothing but foster at least one of these maladies. If they had given you God for your object, it has only been to pander to your pride; they have made you think that you were like him and resembled him by your nature.

The philosophical quest – the project of loving knowledge – had failed, in Pascal’s eyes, simply because the human heart corrupted all it took and turned it into an object of pride. True knowledge, knowledge with the power to liberate could only occur when we began with a healthy awareness of what we were before God. The wisdom writers of the Old Testament would put this quite simply: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

Muggeridge notes that Pascal’s words caused French poet Paul Valery to consider them the “intimations of a sick mind”, adding in response, “If so, let me be sick!” I must agree with him. If a healthy mind is convinced of its own sufficiency and a sick mind recognises its brokenness before an all-knowing God, I think we had all rather be sick.

Scripture would make quite the opposite pronouncement, however, of sickness and health. True mental health before an all-righteous God, it would say, begins with remedying the fundamental lie of the serpent in the Garden of Eden: “God knows that when you eat from [the tree of knowledge] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” No, Pascal would agree: such is not the case. At that very moment, when we posit our own intellects as the final measure of all things, we cease to know anything meaningful at all. We begin, at that moment, to die.

Positioned at the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment, and continuing to rebuke the intellectual pride of our own age, Blaise Pascal stands: an anxious boy with a phobia of running water and a desperate desire to know all things, who reminds us as broken humans that we cannot possibly know everything but that we can trust and know a God who does.

References

Cienin, P. (1972). Existential Thoughts and Aphorisms. London: Gryff Publications.

Cox, C.M. (1926). Genetic Studies of Genius Vol.II: The Early Mental Traits of Three Hundred Geniuses. Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press.

Muggeridge, M. (1969). “Pascal”, in Jesus Rediscovered. London: Fontana, pp.119-122.

Weismann-Arcache, C., and Tordjman, S. (2012). “Relationship between Depression and High Intellectual Potential”, in Depression Research and Treatment, Hindawi Publishing Corporation.

Pascal, B. (1966). Pensées, trans. A.J. Krailsheimer. London: Penguin Books.

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